A bridge to somewhereAll-titanium campus bridge show way for defense industry

Published 12 August 2009

University of Akron, Defense Metals Technology Center co-sponsor design contest for titanium pedestrian bridge on university’s campus; titanium is a strong, lightweight, virtually corrosion-proof (but expensive) metal; a high-profile venture demonstrating titanium’s feasibility in commercial infrastructure projects could spark greater demand and open new markets for titanium
‘Avant-garde’ all-titanium span could spur other projects - and cut Pentagon’s costs

Could a new pedestrian overpass for the University of Akron benefit national security? In a roundabout way, yes, Charlie Clark argues. It might also be a shot in the arm for the U.S. metals industry, and a boon to bridge builders searching for a rust-resistant alternative to steel.

Cleveland Plain Dealer’s John Mangels writes that the key is making the university’s proposed pedestrian bridge entirely of titanium, a strong, lightweight, virtually corrosion-proof (but expensive) metal. No one has ever built an all-titanium bridge before, according to several metals experts, mainly because of cost concerns.

It is avant-garde. It is all new,” acknowledges Clark, the executive director of the Defense Metals Technology Center in North Canton. The Department of Defense-funded center, which opened in 2007, is supposed to help the military solve metals-related technology problems critical to defense and national security.

Before you start thinking “bridge to nowhere,” hear him out. The University of Akron has, and has embraced the idea. It is co-sponsoring a design contest with the defense metals center, seeking an innovative titanium bridge across the railroad tracks that bisect the UA campus.

A high-profile venture demonstrating titanium’s feasibility in commercial infrastructure projects — especially at a time when governments are having to replace aging steel structures such as Cleveland’s corrosion-damaged Inner Belt span — could spark greater demand and open new markets for titanium, Defense Metals officials believe.

More demand should spur competition and help drive down production costs. Lower costs would enable the military to buy more titanium. The Army, for example, needs tough, lightweight metals for armor to protect its vehicles from roadside bombs in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and to lessen the equipment loads that helicopters and planes must shuttle from place to place.

Titanium seems the obvious choice. It is as strong and blast-resistant as steel but weighs 40 percent less — the best strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. You could soak it in salt water for years with no harm. It is in ample supply, mined in the southern and western United States, Canada, Australia and several other countries.

Mangels writes that the problem is production cost. The chemical process developed in the 1930s to extract titanium from mineral-laden rocks is expensive and complicated. Attempts to streamline it have not panned out yet. With its demand for lightweight, long-range aircraft at the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. military jump-started the titanium industry in the 1950s and has